How mental health days could improve the UK's mental health

17th May 2018
Influencing policies
Mental health in the workplace

For Mental Health Awareness Week, we've looked at what we can do to make ourselves less stressed, and we can all do something. But governments in the UK also need to step up and take a leading role in helping to improve our collective mental health by tackling chronic stress.

Mental Health Awareness Week has been about action since 2001 and each year we call on policymakers to take concrete steps to support good mental health and ensure the policy is not undermining the nation's mental health.

One of our key asks is for governments to introduce a minimum of two mental health days for every public sector worker. This would help the people who help us when we are most in need to stay mentally well at times when the pressure threatens to affect their mental health.

The state of play

Our recent YouGov survey of 4,619 adults aged over 18 showed that a third of us (32%) get stressed by thinking about work in our personal time, 23% of us compromise our health to get work done and 16% compromise relationships.

This is terrible for our mental health: some stress is normal (indeed essential) for all of us, but when it becomes constant and overwhelming it can cause us problems that can affect every aspect of our lives. Stress isn’t a mental health problem in itself, but it is linked to depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide, as well as physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease.

How would it work?

We know that staying physically healthy is good for our mental health, as is spending time developing positive relationships.

So how would mental health days for public sector workers help? It is clear from recent reports that our nurses, doctors, police officers and school staff are under increasing pressure, in part due to measures to reduce costs across the public sector and also due to the changing demands of public sector jobs – an ageing population and cybercrime.

We certainly wouldn’t say this is the whole answer to this challenge, but by rolling out mental health days, we can help public sector workers better look after their mental health when they start to feel overwhelmed. By incentivising their use when needed, it will give people a chance to do things for their own mental health, whether that be spending a day with their family or friends or doing a hobby.

We have a similar system in place at the Mental Health Foundation, where everyone gets three ‘well-being days’ each year. The idea is that, if starting to feel stressed and bogged down in work (which we all can from time to time), people take a day for themselves and come back the next day feeling refreshed and ready to go again.

What about the lost work days?

Some will question the loss of productivity from the two mental health days but it’s actually likely to lead to an improvement in productivity.  It would also send a powerful message to people that their mental well-being is important, and can be combined with other ways to support people’s mental well-being in the workplace, such as providing good line management and ensuring people take breaks and use their holiday entitlements.

The Office for National Statistics says that stress and other mental health problems are the fourth highest cause of sickness absence. But our survey suggested that it’s likely that this is underestimated, as 45% of people will make up an alternative reason for absence, rather than report a mental health issue to their employer. In addition, our survey found that 28% of us feel less productive than we could be at work because of stress. When you put all that evidence together, it’s a lot of lost productivity.

What about other workers?

Of course, private and third sector workers also experience stress which can become overwhelming and lead to mental health problems. We would like to see the practice of mental health days picked up more broadly

However, reducing the stress of the public sector workforce will benefit us all and we know that the government in Westminster has committed to leading on workplace well-being in the public sector, as part of its response to the Thriving at Work report. We believe that this is a tangible step that can be taken to increase and support mutual learning and sharing of good employment practices between public, private and third-sector employers.

What else are we calling for?

Action to tackle chronic stress needs to be multi-faceted: there is no one simple solution to the challenges posed by our survey.  Some of the answer is helping people to manage and reduce the stress they experience, but we also need a collective, societal response.  

In addition to our call for mental health days for public sector workers, we have  six other policy asks of governments to help make the UK a less stressed nation:

  • Health and social care professionals should assess and provide support to people living with long-term physical health conditions who are at risk of stress.
  • People who go to health services with stress – such as their GP – should receive a compassionate and trauma-informed response regardless of where they live in the country.
  • Governments and the Health and Safety Executive must ensure that employers treat physical and psychological hazards in the workplace equally.
  • Mental health literacy should be a core competency in teacher training.  This should be combined with rolling out mental health literacy support for pupils in schools across the UK to embed a “Whole School Approach” to mental health and well-being.
  • The government should conduct an impact assessment of welfare reform and austerity programmes on mental health.

More research is needed on the prevalence of stress in the population, and on how the experience of stress can be reduced at the community and societal level.

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